The Art of Reframing and the Power of Positive Possibilities

A few months ago, I crafted up a blog for Diane Crampton that I thought I should also publish here in my blog. I called it,

Recovering the Powers of Positive Possibilities – Ideas and Anchors for The Leadership Art of Reframing

Research shows that new hires rather quickly lose that initiative and spark and that they generally regress to the average morale of the group within a short period of time (Sirota Research, 2010). In other words, they had that motivation and they lost it because of how they were managed!

1SWs One Recover what we lost seuss

Recovery. Noun. 1) The act or process of returning to a normal condition, especially from sickness, a shock, or a setback; recuperation; 2) restoration to a former or better condition; 3) the regaining of something lost; 4) the extraction of something useful from materials or a situation which is otherwise useless or poor.

So, let’s talk about Recovery. If you step back from the wagon, you will see that this illustration both represents how things really work in most organizations and that it represents a whole big bunch of issues and opportunities.

Many Round Wheels are already in the wagon, so one key to identifying the issues is simple:

 Don’t Just DO Something. Stand there!

In haiku, it might read something like this:

2SWs One Haiku dawn breaks with noises

click on this image to open our poems and haiku blog

So, this is a blog around some ideas for dis-un-engaging people. The basic idea is pretty simple:

“Potential Possibility for Performance Productivity Practices Already Exist, and Square Wheels are everywhere!
Find them, Engage People, and Fix Things!

3Real men mud haiku

But don’t find the wheels yourself! Find the wagon pushers and have them find the wheels, identify the possibilities and implement their own solutions. The rationale is quite simple:

People resist the changes done TO them but develop ownership involvement for their own ideas about making things better.
Nobody ever washes a rental car.

People need to be engaged and the role of manager is to help remove all those things that have been disengaging them in their work. If they have some ownership of the solutions and they see possibilities for improvement, they will put forth more effort to succeed. As the two next illustrations might show, it is about motivation and active involvement:

Square Wheels image and Dr. Seuss poem on performance

But the reality is that the manager is an unknown factor in all this in most workplaces. Surveys show that people often feel their ideas are ignored or that they are under aversive control. They will show a lot of compliance behavior, not what we want for involvement and engagement. There is often an issue of trust. And, “Trust is the residue of promises fulfilled.” (Frank Navran)

The suggestion is that managers do a better job of simply asking for ideas for improvement and productivity and that they do a better job of listening and empowering people to actually implement those ideas. What we suggest is that you take the ideas about what is not working smoothly and reframe them into possibilities that can be implemented.

Square Wheels image and poem on performance

If people point to something as a Square Wheel, people will naturally generate a round wheel alternative based on their cognitive dissonance. The real question is one of motivation, reflected as, “Why bother; no one cares…”

Managers need to be identified as coaches and mentors, in addition to their other roles. They need to act as if they care about improvement and about people. Managers should be looking ahead, identifying possibilities and future outcomes, and involving and engaging their staffs for the long pull ahead.

Square Wheels image of Mentoring Change Haiku

Below should be part one of your thinking about people and performance. The focus is on the front end of the process of generating higher levels of involvement and building strengths. Doing some training and some team building will allow people to develop their own ideas and potential as well as improve workplace results. We have one of the truly best team building simulations focused on alignment and performance. Click on the image below to see The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine.

Square Wheels image of muscle building improvement

If we continue to do the same thing, we can pretty much expect the same results.

The key is to Involve. Engage. Enlist. Align. Expect. Impact.

And generate more fun and involvement out there among the people who we depend on to get things done,

 

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels are a trademark of Performance Management Company

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Copyright 2013, 2014  Performance Management Company

Off-Site Meetings, Teamworking and Engaging People for workplace improvement

In a LinkedIn thread, we started discussing company activities and teamwork. My thoughts are along the theme that building teams within an organization is not the same as doing a lot of things that are called teambuilding. What I did was show this picture in a discussion called “Teamwork? Why is this called TEAMwork?” and comment:

Every so often, I am simply struck by what some people call team building. I have written extensively in my other blog about things like go-kart racing, golf, bowling, firewalking and other activities and how a connection to team building behavior and organizational performance change is tenuous at best.

FUN is not team building.

CHALLENGE is not team building.

Teamwork High Ropes Guy

One of my friends talked about her teambuilding experiences thusly:

Hi Scott! I think these activities help build teams when people *choose* to get together and do fun things together; not because the company forces them to do so. The reason certain coworkers will choose to do things together on their own is because the working environment is open and friendly and lends itself to people *wanting* to get to know each other outside of the office. The best team building activities I’ve ever experienced were completely voluntary and informal.

I read a thought this morning that helped me frame this up a bit more clearly in my mind.

It is a simple reality that building a community within an organization is not the same as building real teamwork.

Forming a softball team can have the benefit of helping people get to know each other so as to improve that sense of community; it may help improve communications and trust. But it is not going to help the team build a better sense of alignment to the organization’s goals and visions, nor will it improve systems and processes to have impacts on performance metrics.

The kinds of problem-solving faced by the second baseman when considering whether to throw the ground ball to first base or second base (one out, tie score, 3rd  inning) or the person forty feet off the ground standing on a board is not thinking about improving customer service or generating a sale or shipping an order. Teamwork is adding brains and engagement to business process improvement, more than doing a firewalk or winning at paintball.

I’ve written a lot about the issues I have with things like bowling or golf paid for by company funds and framed as “team building events.” A company started here in Greenville SC with indoor go-karts framed up its first advertisement with it being “a year-round team building opportunity.” Racing about in go-karts is a team building event? How will that impact organizational performance? How will that improve collaboration and decision-making?

There was a lot of media a while back about the Internal Revenue Service and such a formal event they structured. You can read about it here under the title,

IRS needs Large Group Team Building instead of $27,000 Innovation Speakers
Google ChromeScreenSnapz003

IRS Line-Dancing – click to see the video

They spent a gazillion taxpayer dollars on a huge fancy choreographed event, hiring “motivational speakers” (an oxymoron – do any actually motivate you?*) and took time to “train” a whole bunch of people to do different things like the line dancing above (team building, I guess) when they could have done something like The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine for maybe a total of $10,000 (including a leadership development session for senior managers) and generated some serious discussions about organizational and departmental goals, choices about collaboration and improving communications, discussions of shared risk and leadership of others, etc.

* I can remember attending a corporate event years ago when a famous football quarterback / restaurant owner was paid $40,000 to speak to a group of employees and vendors about his experiences with customer service. Does anyone really think that any listener walked away and did anything differently? It was a photo-opportunity for the company execs to get pictures taken, though.

Just as icebreakers to energize can be a waste of time and energy when they are completely unrelated to the training goals and session subject (see Motivation, Training and Icebreakers. Keeping it Real),  organizational team building activities should have a real connection to improving the organization.

Note: You can find a solid article on ideas for success for off-site team building event management ideas on this blog post.

That is not to say that company activities aren’t good things to do, because they are. But when limited budgets for organizational improvement are spent on picnics, bowling, softball and other community-building activities, you can miss the opportunity to do things that actually make impacts on people and performance. Do both, if you can,

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

 

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Getting the Cows to the Barn; Thoughts on Alignment and Performance

I am NOT saying that employees are cows. Just the opposite, actually. Well, guess I am not sure what the opposite of a cow would be, but I have always been focused on issues of people and performance and looking for ideas and approaches to generate improved alignment and results.

Square Wheels image of Lego Team

In a LinkedIn discussion about motivation and alignment, I remembered an analogy that old friend Ken Junkins used when we were talking about people and motivation, so I thought to share it in that discussion as well as pop it into the blog. Here is the rough storyline as to how I remember Ken using the story of herding cows back 30 years ago…

I am reminded of the herd of cows wandering aimlessly in the pasture. You, the manager, need to get them to the barn, so how do you do that?

Some managers will go out and get their supervisors to shoot guns and ride around the back with horses, yelling and screaming. That will get some of the cows to move away from them, (hopefully toward the barn). But, it will not be a successful enterprise unless you have lots of those herders and those herders are all sharing the same goal of moving the cows toward the barn within a certain amount of time.

Another approach is to get some sweet feed and sprinkle it out on the ground between the herd and the barn. Not many of the cows will know it is even there, but the ones that do will begin to move in your desired direction.

As those cows move, more of the others will wonder what is going on and begin to also move in that direction. With some gentle prodding from the management team, after the cows are beginning to go in the right direction, the herders at the back can begin to gently motivate the laggards, at least getting their attention that something is happening.

It is a slow process and not nearly as much fun as riding around fast and shooting guns and yelling and screaming. But you will have more contented cows and need a lot less management overhead to get them to where you want to go…

Ya think?

You can read more on my metaphors of herding here, with a pretty funny and well-linked article on herding cats and frogs. Click on the image to go there.

Herding Cats - EDS Commercial

Managing and motivating people is seen to be a difficult task. Some people believe that aversive control and punishment are the best rewards, most likely because they think that this approach is what motivates them. (That is probably not true, but it is a belief.) The research shows pretty clearly that intrinsic motivation generated through teamwork, alignment, good feedback systems and congruent values is much more effective that extrinsically-driven approached.

Extrinsic rewards may work, and they may work better for some people than for others, but they are not generally effective over the long term.  And the use of aversive control generates all sorts of problems. (See the article on sabotage and defense, aversive control and punishment by clicking on the icon below)

Defense with © Square Wheels Image

The two articles linked to the illustrations share a good bit of research data about motivating and aligning people toward workplace improvement. I trust that they may stimulate some thoughts about what you might try do to differently or that they will confirm some of the things you choose to do now.

Have fun out there, too.

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels are a trademark of Performance Management Company

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A Few Stats on Workplace Fantasy Football

I thought that this was interesting data, so I report it here:

Fantasy Football’s cost to lost productivity will be more than $13 billion dollars this year (2014), since it will be played by more than 25 million people (with 4 of 5 being men) with an average weekly time investment of 8.7 hours per person.

Is this lost money for companies or does it have some benefits? It is hard to measure that or make one inference for so many different work cultures… Each of us has our own beliefs and observations and frameworks to evaluate the impacts.

Creating some workplace fun can have positive benefits.

BIG Square Wheels LEGO Fun image

Click on image to see, “Is work funny or what?” article

As to benefits, 54% of the players say that their participation increases camaraderie with fellow employees and that participation helps with the building of better rapport with their business contacts (16%). It is fun to be a fan and to share fandom and close interactions can have benefits to teamwork and collaboration.

And the reality is that it would be hard to actually block workplace participation in such an activity and attempts to repress it would probably be met with some resistance. While sharing a common adversary might improve teamwork, the dynamics of that might cause problems.

(Here is an article about workplace sabotage and some of the driving factors)

And it is about money. Wonder why you see so many advertisements for Fantasy Football leagues? Overall, fantasy sports shows the average player spending $111 and the industry raking in $1.1 billion dollars in 2013.

And workplace interruptions of all kinds consume about 3 to 5 hours of time a day with costs estimated to be over $580 billion a year, so fantasy football represents only a small part of of the cost of people and performance.

The question I would frame up is how much are we doing to involve and engage our people into the game of our organizations and use that shared mission and goal to help drive more desired behavior, innovation, involvement and ownership?

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels are a trademark of Performance Management Company
LEGO® is a trademark of The LEGO Group

(Statistics from newsletter of workforce.com and you can see a graphic overview of this data and a few more statistics and ideas at http://www.workforce.com/articles/20746-by-the-numbers-september-2014 and http://www.workforce.com/articles/20496-by-the-numbers-june-2014 )

The Future of Work, The Future of The Workplace

It’s dangerous for me to sit and read, sometimes, since my mind goes off into different dimensions. I was reading a couple of articles in Smithsonian and Mother Jones and it had me thinking about The Workplace and The Future and the reality that if we continue to do things the same way, we are going to find ourselves in, “interesting times.”

I see a real paradox in business’ push for innovation and creativity meshed with how so many treat customers and employees. The ones that do treat the latter well tend to be demonstrably more innovative and profitable over the long term. All that data is very clear. Productivity is much higher: “Employees aren’t being asked to create a product, they are being asked to do the work previously done by four people in half the time it took just 10 years ago.” (Cliff Stevenson)

And a new client has just completed a company-wide survey showing all the task-interference with actually demonstrating leadership skills among her managers. (She promised me the data, so more to come on that, for sure).

SO, there I was with my mind spinning. And the thought was to try to illustrate a series of posters about the future of work and the future of the workplace…

Here is the first of them:

Square Wheeels LEGO ImageThe future of work - we laugh Poster

The funny thing is that this really seems true, with lots of data to back it up. A few companies are doing things so differently and better than their competitors that they have significant, sustainable differences in operational data and in things like creativity and innovation.

After initially posting this up, I am back an hour later adding another to this series. This is also characteristic of a lot of workplaces:

Square Wheels Image Future of Work - At Our Firm Poster

While some just plod along like they always have, thump thump thump thump.

AND LOOK AT ALL THE PROGRESS WE HAVE MADE!

Choose to do things more better faster. Innovative Ideas are at hand.

(And pop back in here to see more in this series of thoughts. I will put them up individually in the poems blog and try to add more into this post.)

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s quips and quotes on Poems on The Workplace is here.

Square Wheels are a trademark of Performance Management Company
LEGO® is a trademark of The LEGO Group

 

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Outdoor Training: Issues of Learning and Change

Workers are the people who are doing the work. Managers are the people managing. Teamwork should have positive impacts and collaboration is more important than competition.

So why do most outdoor activities seem to be highly competitive ones? And why would we want MORE competition within the organization since it is already not helping — “interdepartmental collaboration” is an oxymoron in most places!

And I am sure that the workers find more competition within the different departments of your company right now than they find between your company and your competitors. The senior managers might see things differently, but do the workers themselves actually feel they are competing with others more than they feel they are already competing with their own management?

  • So, why not focus on more inter-departmental collaboration and alignment?
  • Why not build on improving communications and engagement?
  • Why keep doing competitive things when collaborative ones are needed?

—————————

Airline Cargo Volleyball TrophyWe won the competition, but we lost the team building aspect of things. And I have the trophy to prove it! More on this below.

—————————

On occasion, I am asked if one of our team building games could be used in an outdoor setting. Wow, does that bring up some memories about what might have happened and the reality of losing control. I find too many uncontrolled things can happen in an outside environment and wonder why they are used, actually. And, so many of these outdoor events are strictly “games” and not learning events and, therefore, primarily competition-based engagement.

(Is that an oxymoron?)

Being outside is great, but is it cost effective for a business to make that decision? I guess if FUN is the desired outcome, and not LEARNING nor generating behavioral commitments to do things differently, outdoor games can work.

The idea of sports analogies or military frameworks applied to business development situations also makes me uncomfortable because businesses do NOT represent how sports teams operate nor are we generally accepting assault and raw aggression as good business strategies. We are not a football team with a quarterback and plays and countless practice drills and direct head-to-head team competition with other teams. We are not a baseball team, with players who each do their jobs in the field and then take bats individually against the pitcher of another team. We are not basketball teams, running plays and shooting baskets. We can make analogies to those activities, but we are not in those industries!

Paintball as a business exercise? Shooting at other people with the goal of doing them harm (killing them out of the game?) and demanding some level of motor skills coordination and physical activity of running and dodging to succeed creates an unfair playing field.  Sure, there are analogies, but is that a business learning opportunity? Is building a rope bridge and then walking over it a real situation for your business (or driving a go-cart or bowling) — is it going to generate real business collaboration and improvement? Firewalking?

(I do have a good article on Business Sabotage you can read here!)

Sports are too much about winners and losers whereas business requires collaboration across a variety of operational and support groups. Military games are way too deadly serious and many of your participants may have significant emotional ties to such situations. If they were in a real war, your activity will bring back those strong negative associations and memories. If they had a child or relative killed or injured in some war, it is that same issue — you are coercing them to participate in a situation that creates unpleasant emotions.

Do we really need to use competition and competitiveness
as driving forces
for collaboration within our companies?

(Is that telephone customer service rep actually in competition with another company or merely depending on collaboration from other departments to perform well in her job? Is that guy on the shopfloor really competing with The Koreans in producing a high quality automobile? Is competition the real driving force for top performance by people? (Answer: NO) )

Workers are the people who are doing the work. Managers are the people managing. Workers and Managers both want LESS competition within the different departments of your company. So, why not focus on more inter-departmental collaboration and improving communications and engagement?

Generally, the links to the business improvement issues — why companies are actually spending money and time with managers and employees — are sometimes quite vague when relating many outdoor activities to organizational behavior and leadership, problem solving or change. Sure, these outside exercises are fun and people do like to solve problems and compete. But it takes a good facilitator to bring out the discussions and not all the facilitators are all that good nor is there always support within the program design for a strong debriefing to take place. Plus, the links from the activity back to business are sometimes stretched.

I speak with experience as a participant of many different kinds of these activities. One was at a college with a bunch of my Leadership Greenville colleagues (a program supported by our Chamber of Commerce). Being collaborative and facilitative in my general style, I applied these skills in discussions about solving the outdoor problems at hand (like the acid river and the bucket on a string designs). The “session leader”  actually decided I was helping too much and told me that I HAD to be silent and could not talk – this is also known as punishment in psychology and it has pretty predictable consequences long-term.

(Yeah, and imagine when I was allowed to talk in the debriefing! One of the questions I asked of her was about the leader’s business experience. Turns out that she had never actually had an actual job. And she is the leader of this group of business people? Really?)

Another such program on collaboration turned into a mass group competition, where the VP of the group was making things more competitive by timing the different problem solving activities and comparing different groups to the others.

Airline Cargo Volleyball TrophyWe actually had a quite competitive volleyball teambuilding competition, too, and during the awards ceremony, many of the Losers actually booed the Winners in front of the company’s Executive VP Operations. And this was at a team building event where the company spent many 10s of thousands of dollars bringing players in from all over the US and hosting them at a retreat facility in the middle of Texas!

Note: I was on the winning team and I still have my trophy on my bookshelf as a reminder of how badly this went…

That same event also had one of the participants being stung by a scorpion when he leaned on a tree — he went into shock. But the facilitation team actually carried an anaphylactic shock kit with them out in the field, since it had apparently happened before (wonder if they had mentioned that when working on the design of the activities). Needless to say, that hour spent on it was costly for the 60 highly paid company people — everything stopped completely — as well as pretty distracting for all of his friends and co-workers.

Competition produces chaos and confusion, not collaboration and improvement

My outdoor delivery experiences also include a session where the sun came out and totally washed out the projected images on the screen so no one could see. At a different event, the temperature in the huge circus tent went to 110 degrees and the big electric fans blew all the papers off the tabletops (so we taped them down). But these same fans were so noisy that the debriefing was impossible, as also occurred with the game activities that followed after my session. And this narrative represents the short-version of all the things that went wrong…

Another event had it rain for an hour right after we put the maps and things on the tables. We quickly recollected all the soluble stuff and then, when the rain stopped, we had each table select what it required from our “Organized Pile of Materials” and take these things outside to their tables (which the hotel staff helped us dry off with a massive number of room towels).

YES, my games CAN be delivered as outside activities, but why? I actually cannot remember a single time when something did not go wrong and force us to make a major adjustment in our delivery (like an afternoon lightning storm). And I cannot imagine doing a large group, outside, with any kind of controllable learning outcomes. Here is one we did for 500 people that went really well:

Large group team building delivery - INSIDE - with everything under control!

If my client is paying big bucks to get people to the venue, feed them, house them and all that, and they are renting a room for lunch or dinner, why the heck not simply deliver the exercise inside under controlled temperature and lighting and audio/video and avoid all the disasters? Why even allow the potential problems? What is the big benefit of people standing around outside? (Heck, maybe I could design a program around them all coming over to my house and working on my yard and gardens, ya think? Do it like one of those cooking classes — I could sell it as a Landscaping Teambuilding Initiative and maybe even get them to work on my neighbors’ yards…)

Lastly, I do not consider firewalking, golf, go-karting or golfing to be very good team building activities. Baseball is okay, maybe, since everyone can play and bat and all that but running is required (and I actually ruptured an Achilles tendon playing ball). Volleyball requires too much skill and the size and skill differences between people can be way too large. And how many times do I have to pass balls around or deal with a bucket on a string or hold hands with other people to solve a problem, anyway…

There are LOTS and lots of good team building games and exercises that can be delivered with high impact and good learning. So, why intentionally add uncontrollable factors just to make it some “outside” program whereby a much higher potential for non-participation or even injury might occur?

I will always remember the White Mile movie starring Alan Alda: A corporate team-building trip ends in tragedy in this drama. Hoping to build bonds between his employees and clients, advertising executive Dan Cutler (Alan Alda) takes the group on a whitewater rafting excursion. But the raft capsizes, several of the men die, and one widow files a lawsuit. Cutler tries to hide his negligence, and one survivor (Peter Gallagher) faces a difficult moral dilemma.

Have fun out there! And maximize your team building impact.

 

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Follow Scott’s posts on Pinterest: pinterest.com/scottsimmerman/
Scott’s blog on Poems and Quips on Workplace Improvement is here

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this was re-edited and re-published on September 30, 2012.

Innovation, Infrastructure and Africa – Square Wheels or Round Wheel Choices

For the past 10 years or so, I have been reading the works of my pal, Brian Paxton, in South Africa. His writing is insightful and I often send him notes about things that link to his thinking about Africa and its opportunities. Here is one that I received this morning in his Mbendi newsletter, notable because I think it hits directly on the kinds of thinking I see as problematic.

Before I share his writing, though, let me frame it up with this idea:

How things really work in most organizations...

In the above, the team proceeds to continue to do things the same way and getting the same result. They work hard and DO meet the goals that are set, but these same old goals and systems and processes generally keep them doing the same kinds of things.

The above is illustrated in what Brian shares:

————–

THE WORLD AFTER 2020 – INFRASTRUCTURE DREAMING

In these days of fast advancing technology, one of Africa’s key competitive advantages versus the rest of the world is that it is very much a green field. Not literally of course, because you have places like the Sahara Desert, but figuratively.

Take communications for example. Twenty years ago, at the advent of the cell-phone / Internet revolution, Africa’s telephone infrastructure, where it existed at all, was decidedly antiquated. Today the majority of Africans have cell phones – I have vivid memories of seeing a red-clad Masai in the wilds of Tanzania herding his cattle while talking on his phone. East Africa pioneered cell-phone payment systems largely eliminating the need for banking infrastructure, branches, ATMs and all.

New cheap smart devices can deliver education, entertainment, news, medical diagnoses, prices and a whole lot more to Africans without requiring all the obsolete copper, paper and corporate infrastructure developed nations still have to amortize.

A regular MBendi newsletter reader recently pointed me to an article on the Guardian newspaper website. It seems that at some times of the day Queensland wholesale electricity prices fall below zero as 1,100 MW of solar panels on the roofs of 350,000 buildings across the state churn out electricity. Of course those same buildings are also connected to dirty coal-fired plants via a complex system of transmission and distribution cables, all of which, likewise, requires amortization, so there’s a tussle developing between the utilities wanting a return on capital and their customers wanting cheap power.

Now, if Queensland is sunny, Africa is even sunnier with a countryside largely unblighted by transmission lines and coal-fired pollution. In our last newsletter we mentioned that solar street lights are to be installed in all towns in Nandi county, Kenya. Last week NYSE-listed Chinese company Jinko Solar, the fourth-largest solar PV manufacturer in the world, opened an R 80 million manufacturing plant in Cape Town which can produce solar photovoltaic panels equivalent to 120 MW each day. So, in the electrical power arena, it would seem that Africa too enjoys an advantage through its lack of traditional power infrastructure and there are some, albeit cautious, moves afoot to capitalise on this.

But not so fast. Last week the US government convened a meeting of the leaders from 54 African countries to discuss USA-African trade and investment. With great fanfare the US government used the occasion to announce that it is to invest billions of dollars in African infrastructure, particularly electrical power generation where General Electric will lead the charge. Chinese leaders chimed in to propose working hand in hand with the Americans on African infrastructure. Meanwhile down in South Africa, state investment in infrastructure is seen as a way to stimulate the economy, starting with yet another massive coal fired power station, a nuclear power plant and additional railways to ship coal locally and abroad. Not only do none of these projects take advantage of Africa’s green fields but they will leave the continent with expensive, soon-to-be-redundant infrastructure.

But that’s not the only problem. While the USA claims to be investing billions in African infrastructure, the payments will go largely to American suppliers and consultants with just a fraction paid to local manufacturers. In East Africa there’s a protest groundswell developing at the news that 5,000 Chinese workers are to be shipped in to build a railway; perhaps the Ethiopians have told them about the thousands of Chinese workers who weren’t repatriated when major projects finished there. We’ve all had the experience of buying a computer printer then finding replacement ink cartridges cost as much as the original printer; I hope someone sane is factoring in all the running and maintenance supplies needed from the donor nations after this generous donation of infrastructure goes live.

Back in 2002 BAE Systems, aided and abetted by the UK government, foisted an expensive and totally unnecessary military radar system on Tanzania. The whole shady deal turned out to have involved bribery and corruption so much so that in 2010 the UK’s Serious Fraud Office handed down a £29.5 million fine on the company. Companies from around the world who, with the support of their national governments, supplied South Africa with arms in the late 1990’s are suspected of similar malpractices.

All these big infrastructure projects – unlike solar panel or cell phone investments of individuals – carry the same potential for the decision making process to be perverted by bent carrots and sticks, especially by opaque governments. With Russia tipped as being the favourite of South Africa’s atom-minded cabinet, maybe that’s why President Zuma didn’t condemn Russia’s takeover of the Crimea as he lambasted Israel’s Gaza incursions in a supposedly trade-related speech in Washington?

Africa would be a better place if a group of experts could sit down and rationally plan how best to plow Africa’s rich green fields. Start with a glorious vision; take a sober view of where we are at present; and then build a logical plan to take us from here to there. This is a much better approach than simply gratefully accepting what is foisted on us by others in their interests even more than ours.

In my words, the Square Wheels are everywhere but the Round Wheels already exist in the wagon. We can repeat the same old models for electrical infrastructure or we can look to NEW proven models that would seem to make a lot more sense. They need to step back from the wagon to see things differently and to generate alternative choices that make the best sense and that optimize the journey forward.

(An irony is that GE’s Turbine manufacturing is located here in my home town. I think they are a great employer and I have many friends working there. But are the same Square Wheel Turbines what Africa really needs to move their wagon forward?)

Y9u can reach Brian Paxton here  – MBendi Information Services <brian@mbendi.com> and you can find and subscribe freely to his previous (great) newsletters here: http://www.mbendi.com/mbendipr/newsletter/website/index.htm

 

For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

 
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